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Tips on Last-Minute Rentals

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Before the recession, many travelers booked rental properties months in advance. Not anymore. Here are some tips on reserving a vacation abode on short notice.

-- "Go online and shop, shop, shop," said Douglas Quinby, senior director of research at PhoCusWright. "There have never been more Web sites for rental properties than now." One of the leading sites is HomeAway (http://www.homeaway.com), with more than 180,000 listings worldwide and a Travel Deals category. "We surveyed owners, and 66 percent of them said they will offer speci al deals or incentives, such as a free night stay or free use of the golf course," said Eileen Buesing, spokeswoman for HomeAway. VacationRentals.com (http://www.vacationrentals.com) has fewer properties (a mere 35,000) than HomeAway, its sister site, but features a host of deals and perks, some geared toward last-minute reservations. For a more streamlined search, check the online version of local newspapers. I found my Cape May, N.J., cottage (owned by Sally Hulbert and part of the Ashley Rose Victorian Inn, through the Cape May Times (http://www.capemaytimes.com/rentals/cape-may.htm), which posts properties run by managing companies and individuals. If you prefer to work directly with the homeowner, have a look at Vacation Rentals by Owner (http://www.vrbo.com). Finally, don't forget eBay and Craigslist. On the latter, just a few days before the holiday, I found a week-long condo rental in Duck, N.C., starting on the Fourth of July.

-- Work the phones. Online listings are not comprehensive, especially if there are last-minute cancellations. Call managing companies (ask your destination's tourism office for names and numbers) and inquire about openings. Also, if you see a property that is listed as "weekly rentals only" or appears booked, don't be deterred. The calendar might not have been updated, and the owner might be flexible with the time period; a call can resolve those issues. Before committing, ask those hard-hitting questions, such as how far it is to the beach, whether linens and towels are included, whether there's parking, what the checkout requirements are, etc.

-- Be flexible. During high season, owners and managers prefer to rent by the week but are not averse to a different configuration of days to fill gaps in the calendar. (Earlier or later in the season, shorter rentals, including weekends, are more pervasive.) According to William May, president of the Vacation Rental Industry Association, you can often get a good deal on a Sunday-Wednesday stay. For my rental, had I tacked on a third night, the rate would have dropped from $150 to $120 a night. Additionally, keep an open mind about the type of property. Consider apartments, condo units and cottages. You might also want to negotiate price. "Don't haggle, but have a conversation with them," suggested Buesing. "Be open with the owners."

-- Factor in mode of travel. It's easier to book last-minute rentals you can reach by car. If a plane ride is required, give yourself additional time to research and reserve. "For Orlando, the Rocky Mountains and Hawaii, you'll need to book farther out because of the airfare," May said. "But when you drive, you call Friday morning and leave that morning."

-- Compared with a hotel, a rental requires additional steps. Most likely, you will be required to sign a contract and pay a refundable deposit and cleaning fee on top of the rate. Because of the compressed time, you might have to overnight the contract and a check. Yes, a check: Many homeowners and smaller operations do not accept credit cards, and some might even require a certified check or money order. "The rental industry is slow to offer online booking," said Quinby. Before signing off, be sure you know exactly where the key is kept and whether there are entry codes or gates to negotiate. When leaving, remember to check off all the final chores, such as taking out the trash and recycling, and washing the dishes.

-- A.S.

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